President Reagan’s decision to order air strikes against Libya on Monday marked a clear turning point in his confrontation with international terrorism, but it was uncertain whether the new escalation would deter further attacks on American citizens or only intensify what Reagan called the terrorists’ “monstrous brutality.”
Since entering the White House in 1981, the President had warned he would meet terrorism with “swift and effective retribution.” In practice, however, each time he faced a specific outburst of terrorist violence from Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and other radical regimes, Reagan drew back from a military response.
“The President’s finally done what he’s been getting ready to do for months and months: strike at the infrastructure of terrorist activities,” said Ray S. Cline, a former deputy director of the CIA. “I think the Administration has been building up to this. . . . It was mostly a question of when the right case would come along.”
“We don’t know how Kadafi will react,” Cline said. “But it was perhaps more a symbolic action than a specifically successful tactic. If the Administration didn’t act, they would lose their credibility and terrorists would feel they had a free ticket.”
What remained unclear, in the eyes of some specialists in terrorism and Mideast politics, was whether and how this attack on Libyan military bases would protect Americans from attack by terrorist groups in Europe.
“I have no illusion that tonight’s action will ring down the curtain on Kadafi’s reign of terror,” the President conceded in explaining last night’s action. But he declared: “We believe that this preemptive action against his terrorist installations will not only diminish Col. Kadafi’s capacity to export terror, (but) it will provide him incentives and reasons to alter his criminal behavior.”
One expert on Libya, P. Edward Haley of the Keck Center for Strategic Studies at Claremont-McKenna College, said he believes the U.S. attack “will have some significant restraining effect on the Libyan government.”
“Kadafi is a cautious, skillful tactical leader,” Haley said. “He won’t put himself in a showdown with a stronger enemy. This is not a man given to final showdowns. He has no illusions about Libya’s ability to defeat the United States. . . . His interest is in symbolic acts of defense.
Paul M. Cole of Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies said the U.S. action could lead to increased attacks. “We’ve probably handed every terrorist group in the world a freebie to strike Americans,” he warned.
Nonetheless, he said, “It’s true that retaliation doesn’t stop terrorism. It’s almost analogous to the debate over the death penalty. But there is one thing that’s clear: It raises the cost. . . . If a rational actor sees the costs will outweigh the benefits, he won’t go through with the action.”
Another Georgetown analyst, G. Henry M. Schuler, said he feared Reagan’s action would turn out to be “counterproductive.”
“It is perfectly justified, but that doesn’t mean that it is wise,” Schuler said. “It will prompt the people at home (in Libya) to rally around Kadafi, and the people in the region as well.”
Whatever the effect on terrorists, the air strike appeared certain to create political friction between the United States and its Western European allies. Only hours before American fighter-bombers took off from bases in Great Britain and aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean, the European Communities foreign ministers had appealed to Reagan to exercise restraint.
The attack, the first U.S. military response to terrorism since President Reagan took office, was the culmination of a long debate within his Administration on how best to deter radical states such as Libya from sponsoring bombings and hijackings.
Criticism of Carter
Reagan came to the White House after criticizing President Jimmy Carter’s patience during the 14-month-long Iranian hostage crisis of 1979-81, and he made a vow of “swift and effective retribution” as he welcomed those hostages home. But the promise proved difficult to keep.
Reagan was soon confronted with a series of terrorist attacks on Americans in Lebanon, including the worst single such attack in U.S. history, the 1983 suicide bombing of a U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut. But his Administration’s initial response was one of indecision: Secretary of State George P. Shultz argued for tough military action while Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger insisted that military force was appropriate only in limited circumstances.
While the Cabinet debated the issue in public, the government of France secretly asked whether Reagan was willing to join it in an air strike against an alleged terrorist headquarters in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The Administration could not resolve its disagreements, and the French went ahead on their own.
‘Infrastructure of Terrorism’
Again, when Beirut-based Shia Muslim militants hijacked a TWA jet in 1985, the Administration debated military retaliation--but decided against it, in part because Reagan believed that a U.S. counterattack that killed innocent bystanders would be terrorism as well.
Beneath the surface, however, a counterterrorism policy was slowly taking shape. Officials said that it gradually focused on Libya because Kadafi was more open than other leaders in avowing his support of terrorism and because that country’s “infrastructure of terrorism"--training camps, military installations and communications centers--appeared easier to hit without doing damage to civilians.
Last month, when Kadafi publicly challenged the U.S. Navy to send its ships into the Gulf of Sidra--which most countries consider international waters--Shultz and other top officials seized the chance to stage a demonstration of American resolve. The technical issue was freedom of navigation--but the real point, to at least some officials, was to draw Kadafi into a military confrontation.
End of Inhibitions
Cline said that Monday’s air strikes, following the Navy’s brief battle with Libya in the Gulf of Sidra, should end some U.S. inhibitions against military action.
“I think it finally exorcises the taboo on use of force by the United States in behalf of a legitimate international legal activity,” he said. “We’ve tended to shy away from any use of force, a tendency which has been called the Vietnam Syndrome. I think the President is determined to get away from that.”
And William J. Taylor Jr., executive director of the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies, predicted that “This isn’t the final step. If anyone thinks this is the final step of this Administration, this government, they’re crazy. Sit back and wait. We’ve got a lot more things in the military spectrum that can be done.”
Times staff writers Maura Dolan and Michael Wines contributed to this article.